Queens: Collaboration and how to make it easy on yourself and your bees – by Karl Colyer

Last year, I did several splits including splits of all my favourite breeder colonies in mid-August. It was a slight gamble where I live in Cheshire but the weather was fair and the outlook very similar. Roger mentioned that I was out of action from last September (2 months to get walking, a year to pass a medical to get my driving licence back and lots of mobility issues in between). The rivers around me flooded while I was in hospital and many of my bees and colonies were literally swept away.

An example of flood damage to 48 colonies in Cheshire
An example of flood damage to 48 colonies in Cheshire

Anyway, long story short, I needed to get back into increasing my stocks. Of my remaining colonies, only two were what I would consider to be sensible to raise queen cells from. Roger was talking about his intention to raise more queens than usual this year and we figured that his ‘rejects’ may well be better than my current choice of bees.

I had bees up on Saddleworth Moor (900ft), just into Derbyshire (1,130ft) but most were down on the Cheshire plains with a similar altitude and climate to West Sussex. I certainly wouldn’t want to impose the cooler, windier and wetter options onto the bees coming from Roger so I kept it simple and sensible.

Just to give a little more background information, Roger and I, along with a few other BIBBA committee members, had posted grafted larvae to each other during 2019. It is feasible to raise queen cells from grafted larvae but the success percentage was quite low at our first attempt. That said, we were trying a ‘worst case’ scenario with timings, temperature and deliberately long postal times where we could. This year was going to be easier with virgin and mated queens.

If you are receiving queens or even cells from another person as a part of NatBIP, it helps to both prepare and to manage things. I won’t go into a lot of detail here but we tried a lot of options from 10 days’ notice of postage to finding an email saying “six queens will be with you tomorrow”. It will pay to figure out how to cope with a sudden availability of a spare queen or three at very short notice. I never refused a delivery though it really did stretch me at points to find the supporting bees, frames, food and a box to put them all in.

It helps to get organised but, at a push, do all you can with all you’ve got!
It helps to get organised but, at a push, do all you can with all you’ve got!

I much prefer doing the prep work a week beforehand and carefully going through and knocking down the queen cells before introducing the new queen. Doing it the other way round seems more stressful (for me) and I opted to put my queen and her attendant workers straight onto some sealed brood on a frame cleared of bees, all safely separated by a queen introduction cage.

Obviously, introducing virgin queens brings extra risks with mating flights and when to check to see if it’s gone right or not. Again, I’m not going to go into detail about every step at this stage but I will list out some learning points about getting yourself organised.

  1. Figure out how to create another 1-6 colonies for when a suitable larvae, queen cell, virgin queen or mated queen becomes available. Have a few things prepared so that when you get the call or email, it’s not a mad dash.
  2. As soon as the above equipment is used, figure out where the next frames, box etc. is coming from.
  3. Your larvae or cells or bees will arrive. Roger sent them in cages, typically numbered 1 to 6 with a description of the bee and where she came from. Keep this cage with your colony. Once the queen has worked her way out of the cage, I put the cage adjacent to the colony. Don’t do this! After a windy day, the empty cages are on the ground. Put them on the crown board, inside the hive.
Empty Queen cages neatly at the side of the nucs before a storm blew them to the ground
Empty Queen cages neatly at the side of the nucs before a storm blew them to the ground

When Roger sent the next batch, he labelled them 1 to 8. I guess you can figure out what was going to happen. By the end of the deliveries, I had six cages with a 1 on it, six with a 2 on it etc., etc. Get yourself organised. I was putting the date I received them into a piece of paper on the crown board but it was also useful to put the date that Roger sent me the email with identification information on so I knew which cage 1 it was. Use any system you wish but expect total confusion if you don’t have any system in place.

  1. Make notes of how the bees arrived. This was very useful with the grafted larvae the year before. Queen marked? Looks OK? Attendants in the cage? How many? Weather? We found that the fondant was glooping around in the jiffy bag on hot days. The two main issues with this were:
    – the bees were covered in the sticky stuff to the point where they couldn’t seem to sort themselves or other bees out. I sprayed some with warm water and this appeared to help.
    – with the reduced fondant remaining, the receiving bees got into the cage in double quick time and two cages had the dead queens inside. I’m unsure if it was the sticky fondant or the rapid introduction.
Newly arrived queens with melted fondant. Noticed before the bee escaped.
Newly arrived queens with melted fondant. Noticed before the bee escaped.
  1. Small entrances are required. The new colony needs to be defendable and the foraging bees may end up going back to the parent hive. I left new nucs locked up in a cool shed for three days before moving them out and onto a stand, opening up the entrance.

So, did it all work? Not entirely. I had some bees not mate/return, some absconded, one queen was dead upon delivery and two were found dead in cages introduced into colonies five days previously. I passed one queen onwards to a new beekeeper because I was struggling to give her a quality home. That may all sound bad, but it equated to around about an 80% success rate in introducing a lot of bees very quickly. I’m sure you appreciate that having to make up 30 nucs at short notice can be quite challenging.

Now, when I say that it didn’t entirely work, I need to clarify that. In May, I had two queens to use on my personal bee improvement programme. Now, I would say that I have around 25 or so and five of those are significantly better than the two I had before. I have set up three apiaries and will group my bees next spring to use all this wonderful stock to further increase and improve my colonies.

As a final note, you may be curious as to how I judge my bees. I know there are 25+ different criteria that can be used ranging from colour, wing morphology, DNA etc. but the NatBIP has recommended some simple suggestions that I have found to be perfect for getting most of my improvement decisions and actions under way:

HARDY? I rarely feed my bees, I rarely treat for varroa, I try to intervene as little as possible other than two good disease checks per year which I hopefully combine with swarm prevention/splitting and with honey extraction

DOCILE? If I’m clumsy or impatient the bees let me know. That is entirely down to me and my handling skills. If I can get away with just a little smoke, gentle inspections and the bees are still calm on the comb and not fizzing up, that will do for me.

PRODUCTIVE? This year, I have been prioritising bee production, comb creation and winter stores above any honey surplus for me. This is all part and parcel of establishing new colonies. I haven’t fed syrup to any of my bees yet though I think I may boost four colonies up some more for their first winter. 

Bee improvement, for me, has been a mixture of collaboration, communication, generous sharing from others and keeping a simple record for each queen coming into my care. I was gutted at the beginning of this year contemplating the lack of options with my bees. Now I’m really excited about next year. In the meantime, I’m building more nuc boxes…

Some nucs and brood boxes under construction in an effort to replace the lost hives and bees.
Some nucs and brood boxes under construction in an effort to replace the lost hives and bees.